Hard Times: Journalism’s Credibility Problem

By: Joe Strupp

It’s been a rough spring for newspaper editors and reporters. Ethical scandals great and small have soiled newsrooms from coast to coast. Everyone knows about the profound deceits of Jayson Blair at The New York Times, and the “Writergate” controversy involving Rick Bragg, which led to the departure of the two top editors at the paper. Other misdeeds have ranged from two reporters at The Salt Lake Tribune selling information to The National Enquirer (and failing to tell editors), to a food writer for The Hartford Courant fired for plagiarizing recipes.

Are newspaper standards going to pot? What is the root of the current epidemic of ethical errors? How much does competing with new Internet and cable news outlets have to do with it? And what can be done to save face, change policies, and root out possible wrongdoers?

For numerous stories since the Jayson Blair controversy broke, E&P has interviewed current editors, publishers, and media experts to learn their views, and, in many cases, what steps they are taking to prevent scandals at their own papers. For a longer and deeper perspective, we spoke during the past two weeks with some of the legends of 20th-century newspaper journalism. You know the names — Bradlee, Breslin, Chandler, Neuharth, Halberstam and all the rest.

What follows is a distillation of what they told us, in separate telephone interviews, in response to several specific questions. We believe their remarks, which were edited for space, provide much-needed context for the current debate, and hard-earned wisdom looking to the future.

Q. Ethics are worse than ever — or are they?

JIMMY BRESLIN: “The past is filled with people running photos of wrestlers in the sports section in exchange for money. I don’t think the business has changed at all.”

EUGENE L. ROBERTS: “It is less of a problem than 20 years ago. A lot of newspapers are cutting corners, but the standards in the business have improved. … I don’t think anything Rick Bragg did was an ethical lapse. I think the whole thing was because it occurred in the wake of Jayson Blair. If it had occurred two or three months before, I don’t think it would have prompted even a hiccup.”

BEN BRADLEE: “I would say ethics today are higher, much higher. Compared to American business, our ethics are fantastically high. In the past, you’d get your ass thrown out of the paper on day one for this [Blair-like errors]. In my day, there weren’t as many alternatives to getting bagged.”

BILL KOVACH: “If this [Blair scandal] had happened 20 years ago, we would not have heard about it. We heard about Janet Cooke because of a Pulitzer Prize, but there were not 20 media writers writing every day. There were things going on in the past — such as reporters writing speeches for politicians they covered and taking bribes from lobbyists — but people back then were quietly moved out or they left on their own. There was no public display.”

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: “We now know more about ethical problems, but that doesn’t mean it happens more often. In the past, you could not go online and see what was happening everywhere else.”

DAVID HALBERSTAM: “I think the acceptance of buddy-buddy relationships [between sources and reporters] in the past was worse.”

BEN BAGDIKIAN: “Fifty years ago, what Jayson Blair did was very common. The standards 50 years ago were much lower than today. Training and competency have increased tremendously.”

ALLEN H. NEUHARTH: “This is not something new. But since the Watergate generation of journalists moved into the editing process, the standards have been loosened. A generation of cynics or potential cynics came in with a Woodward-Bernstein complex.”

Q. Do problems start at the top?

HALBERSTAM: “The industry as a whole is in trouble because people at the top are taking out too much money and driving the profits up. The perception is that the real customers are not those who read the paper but those who buy the stock. It damages the profession.”

OVERHOLSER: “Some of this is about resource pressure. These days, profit pressures have made a difference at some papers. Copy desks are overloaded and there is not enough time. More reporters are having to report by phone.”

BAGDIKIAN: “Daily newspapers are often a part of a large media conglomerate, and there is pressure in the publicly-traded companies to keep profits higher than the previous standards. The larger the size of newspapers, the less communication between divisions there tends to be.”

ROBERTS: “The big problem is not the standards of editors, it is the standards of newspaper owner-ship. It has gotten concentrated in fewer hands and they seek to get the profit-margin higher.”

KOVACH: “The important thing is to make sure the ownership understands the value of a news organization with integrity.”

Q. What’s wrong in the newsroom?

BRESLIN: “You still walk, you climb stairs and all the stories are at the top of the stairs. You get into trouble when you get there using an elevator. They [reporters] don’t climb the stairs anymore, they don’t understand the shoe-leather, they don’t teach that in their high-class schools. They are highly trained people who sit in their offices and write term papers. They won’t sully themselves going to a greasy housing project or stand out in the rain for a few hours.”

ORVILLE SCHELL: “We’ve seen a little bit of what happened in the corporate world with Enron — the attitude of ‘whatever it takes.’ The journalism world has been inundated with that — do whatever you have to, to get ahead. … Editors are looking for hungry reporters, but that can be dangerous.”

MARVIN KALB: “There is a loosening of standards that has accumulated over the years. It is a problem that will be around for a while. It is a largely societal problem manifest in journalism in different ways. Standards throughout society are changing.”

KOVACH: “The combination of the economics of journalism with the technological changes has created an atmosphere of trying to get enormous amounts of information as rapidly as possible. That has created pressure turning traditional methods into monsters.”

GEORGIE ANNE GEYER: “You have newspapers that do wonderful work, but you have editors who are very fashionable, high-flying and want Pulitzers at any cost. They fit into the buzz — the fashion and a certain profile. These are not the old standards of the newsroom.”

Q. Is heavy competition the real villain — or just an excuse?

BAGDIKIAN: “Radio, television and the Internet are right out there all the time. You can’t stay with a story all day if you have to rush back and beat CNN.”

KOVACH: “In order to compete, economically and technologically, a lot of short cuts have been permitted. The importance has been to get the dateline, not the information. … Jayson Blair was driven by that. … The pressure (to be first) dilutes the values that make the work important. The most important thing is to be first, be fast, and have a hot story.”

SCHELL: “Every paper needs to slow down and remind ourselves that we have nothing to sell if the readers don’t believe us.”

TOM WICKER: “Competition tends to encourage better journalism, but strict competition is a bad influence. Some of the most egregious errors are made to catch up. Sometimes the pressure creates bad work as opposed to good work. You can get ahead of yourself. … And newspapers have their own Internet versions and that plays into the competition.”

BRESLIN: “How are you going to compete with a camera that is going to have it in 10 minutes? William Randolph Hearst had a rule that it hadn’t been done until we did it. It is how you do it, not when you do it. You can do it better.”

BRADLEE: “Our grandfathers were working when there were five or six papers in a city and they got through it all right. It is a competitive trade. If you think the competition is too great — poor babies!! I don’t think it is the right excuse. We are not competing against MSNBC.”

OVERHOLSER: “The 24/7 news delivery is part of it, but I don’t think the ethical lapses have much to do with that. The 24/7 thing is a villain in other ways, when we write superficially and don’t dig into the story.”

NEUHARTH: “You only have a few examples of where the legitimate press ran with a story too fast. Competition has less to do with it than the loose standards of some operations. The seeds of what we are seeing are there if less-strict standards are in place.”

GEYER: “It is more the pressure for the Pulitzer, and to have that kind of a story.”

OTIS CHANDLER: “I think there is more pressure on newspapers because of competition from other media, but I don’t think it’s rampant.”

Q. New technology is part of the problem — but also a solution?

GEYER: “It can be a tool used to correct yourself, but also a tool to use as a ruse. But you can use any tool as a ruse.”

WICKER: “It is much easier to get caught now and to have your transgressions exposed.”

BRADLEE: “If you are going to steal, it is easier to steal, I guess. But that does not create a lower value of ethics. You could always make up quotes.”

NEUHARTH: “The Internet has played a substantial role in most of the kinds of problems we are talking about. But the vast majority of old school newsrooms won’t let that drive them to run something unless it is verified.”

OVERHOLSER: “These instances of ethical lapses have been with us a long time, but we know more about them because of the Internet. Everyone reads Romenesko, the internal memos are showing up there. This transparency is good, as long as it doesn’t run amok.”

BAGDIKIAN: “I don’t think [technology] is a big factor. It has produced a different kind of competition, but it also allows you to do a lot of things faster, easier.”

CHANDLER: “No longer does a guy or gal walk in and get an appointment with an editor and come face to face. E-mail and all kinds of those things play into that.”

Q.Anonymous sources — where do you draw the line?

BRESLIN: “They are no good. Forget them. If [the source] wants to say it, say it — I will not cover them.”

OVERHOLSER: “I have been singing this song for years — when you use
anonymous sources, you are treading on very dangerous territory. Only in the very rarest of circumstances are they worthwhile. We’ve gone way beyond all of the codes we have lived by — we allow anonymous sources to state opinion. Why have we decided this is okay?”

NEUHARTH: “That source is generally a coward who is afraid to speak up and be identified. They tend to tell more than they know. It is likely to be exaggerated. Reporters tend to write more than they know.”

BAGDIKIAN: “Use them sparingly and carefully. A good editor will do everything possible to find out who [the source] is and only use them with a correspondent who has experience and the trust of the editor.”

KALB: “It is way, way, way overdone. There is a time to use them. When you cover national security issues there are times when they are needed. But they can eat into [public] trust.”

ROBERTS: “It all depends on the circumstances. Nobody has fought harder over the years than The New York Times to end them in Washington, but it is so ingrained, you try for a while and then give it up. Fifteen hundred other reporters in Washington are using them.”

HALBERSTAM: “The question on anonymous sources is how responsibly you use them. But don’t be afraid to use them.”

GEYER: “It really depends on the situation. You sometimes have to use it in the field — extreme circumstances call for extreme things. But you need to look at each case carefully.”

CHANDLER: “Sometimes it is such valuable information, it is something the public should know.”

Q.This ombud’s for you?

BRESLIN: “You are the ombudsman. You make sure the reader gets it the right way.”

CHANDLER: “I never thought it was important enough to do — and there are traps there, too. It has to be the most balanced, talented and qualified person. It is a fine line to walk.”

KOVACH: “There should be an ombudsman at the Times and at other papers. That is part of a desire to represent the interests of the public and be more open.”

ROBERTS: “The ombudsman is really one person writing a column. It can make for interesting debate and discussion, but the highest possible standards are fostered from within. You don’t have to have an ombudsman for high standards and, in some cases, it just becomes showbiz. … I don’t think it would help The New York Times.”

WICKER: “I never worked at a paper that had an ombudsman. But they usually respond to complaints readers have and that would tend to keep reporters on their toes. It would have stiffened my spine.”

BRADLEE: “I’m very big on ombudsmen. If you get the right guy you can do it well. If you get the wrong guy, an ass, it is no good — they are hard to find, the good ones.”

NEUHARTH: “An ombudsman creates an impression that the newspaper cares about the reader’s views, if he or she is free to analyze and criticize. I think the Times very badly needs an ombudsman. It creates an impression that the newspaper cares. It would help to erase the black eye more than anything else they can do.”

OVERHOLSER: “We are not working openly at all. Most people are not of the mind that it is worth it to call (with a complaint). Editors do not have enough time and they are usually defensive. The ombudsman can take the complaint where it ought to go.”

HALBERSTAM: “It can be a plus, checking yourself.”

Q. What are some other solutions?

BRESLIN: “I would take half of the phones out of the city room, put out a bunch of bus passes and get reporters out on the street.”

WICKER: “You have to rely on having good people who are honorable, industrious and follow the rules of journalism. Vigilance is the only way I know. Emphasize to every reporter and editor that we want to always be right — not to be first.”

BRADLEE: “Be sure your nose is down, your ass is up and you are looking for the truth. … You’ve got to be sure you are communicating down as well as up.”

KOVACH: “There is only one way to fix it — be open, be transparent and explain all of the time what we do. We are in a world of interaction right now. I don’t know why news organizations don’t set up more mechanisms for the public to come into the organization. … Make sure your management structure maintains the values.”

KALB: “It is time for the leadership of this industry to sit down and figure out what the hell they are doing. The first is to recapture the trust of the people and come through as a more fair judge of the news and be more accountable.”

NEUHARTH: “Start with a high degree of skepticism at the top, but not cynicism. Skepticism makes you careful and scrutinizing, but cynicism makes you think there is dirt under every door.”

OVERHOLSER: “Have a code of ethics that is clearly stated. You can’t take anything for granted. Make sure everyone knows what the rules are and have editors go over the basics — too many newsrooms are getting rid of the editing.”

BAGDIKIAN: “As newspapers get under pressure from the non-journalist owners, editors have to take special pains to keep parts of the newsroom together. Listen to the troops — the bigger you are, the more important that is.”

GEYER: “Someone should check more on these kids who come in, know their history. Then you train young reporters on the local beats — and get more suspicious top editors.”

CHANDLER: “There has got to be a re-examination of an applicant, an absolute background check.”

SCHELL: “We need greater custodial care at the lower reaches, more attention to journalism apprenticeships to teach ethics. Take the time to reinforce the ethical consequences and build a truly good and honest news culture.”

HALBERSTAM: “Just go out and do the right thing. Human nature is such that there will always be problems like these. … I think the fact that so many people are appalled by (the ethical lapses) is a good sign. The people most offended are the journalists themselves.”

About the Experts

BEN BAGDIKIAN, who became a professional newsman in 1941, is widely known as the “dean of American media critics.” His classic book The Media Monopoly (1983) warned of the dangers of deregulation.

BEN BRADLEE was executive editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991, through many years of glory (Watergate coverage and printing the Pentagon Papers), as well as some infamy (the Janet Cooke scandal).

JIMMY BRESLIN has been a columnist for New York City newspapers for much of the past four decades, and won a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary in 1986. He currently writes for Newsday in Melville, N.Y.

OTIS CHANDLER, like his father and grandfather, served as publisher of the Los Angeles Times (from 1960 to 1980) and is widely credited with helping to turn it into one of the top newspapers in the country.

GEORGIE ANNE GEYER, a famed foreign correspondent for the Chicago Daily News from 1959 to 1975, now writes a column syndicated in more than one hundred newspapers and is the author of seven books.

DAVID HALBERSTAM won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his reporting from Vietnam for The New York Times. He has written numerous bestselling books. His latest is The Teammates.

MARVIN KALB spent 30 years as a top correspondent for CBS and NBC News, and is now senior fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University.

BILL KOVACH spent 20 years at The New York Times, and was editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 1986 to 1989. He is the founding director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.

ALLEN H. NEUHARTH served as CEO of the Gannett Co. from 1973 to 1989, started USA Today in 1982, and founded The Freedom Forum in 1986. He still writes a column for USA Today.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER served as editor of The Des Moines Register from 1988 to 1995, when she became The Washington Post‘s ombudsman. She currently is a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and writes a column for the Poynter Institute Web site, www.Poynter.org.

EUGENE L. ROBERTS joined the staff of The New York Times in 1965. He became editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1972 and led it to 17 Pulitzer Prizes. He returned to the Times as managing editor in 1994, retiring in 1998.

ORVILLE SCHELL is the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism of the University of California at Berkeley and the author of 14 books, nine of them on China. He is a frequent contributor to magazines and newspaper op-ed pages.

TOM WICKER covered politics and national affairs for The New York Times for more than 30 years, and wrote an op-ed column for the newspaper from 1966 to 1991. He has written more than 15 books, both nonfiction and novels.

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